Apr 18, 2017
The Hugo winner and multiple New York Times bestselling science fiction author, John Scalzi, took a break from his whirlwind new book tour to chat with me about The Collapsing Empire, the timely importance of great storytelling, and what makes a writer truly great.
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His wildly popular debut novel, Old Man’s War, began as a serialized blog before attracting attention from an agent. Its 2006 publication earned him a Hugo nomination and multiple awards.
Since then he’s written dozens of novels including New York Times bestsellers The Last Colony, Fuzzy Nation, Redshirts (2013’s Hugo winner for Best Novel), and Lock In. His work has been translated into over 20 languages and multiple projects have been optioned for film and TV.
It’s no surprise that the prolific author has been a professional writer since the early ’90s. In addition to his award-winning blog, “Whatever,” John has written: freelance journalism, novellas, short stories, a wide-range of non-fiction, video games, been a Creative Consultant for a hit TV series, and remains a Critic at Large for the LA Times.
In 2015 the author signed a multi-million dollar deal with Tor Books for 13 titles over 10 years, and the first of those is The Collapsing Empire, a bestselling interstellar space opera that’s been described as “Game of Thrones meets Dune.”
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If you missed the first half you can find it right here.
In Part Two of this file John Scalzi and I discuss:
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Kelton Reid: Welcome back to The Writer Files. I am still your host, Kelton Reid, here to take you on another tour of the habits, habitats, and brains of renowned writers. In part two of this file, the Hugo winner and multiple New York Times best selling science fiction author, John Scalzi, took a break from his whirlwind new book tour to chat with me about The Collapsing Empire, the timely importance of storytelling, and what makes a writer truly great.
His wildly popular debut novel Old Man’s War began as a serialized blog before attracting attention from an agent and editor. Its 2006 publication earned him a Hugo nomination and multiple awards. Since then he’s written dozens of novels including New York Times best sellers The Last Colony, Fuzzy Nation, Red Shirts, and Lock In. His work has been translated into over 20 languages and multiple projects have been optioned for film and TV. It’s no surprise that the prolific author has been a professional writer since the early nineties. In addition to his award winning blog Whatever, John has written freelance journalism, novellas, short stories, a wide range of nonfiction, video games, been a creative consultant for a hit TV series, and remains a critic at large for the LA Times.
In 2015, the author signed a multimillion dollar deal with Tor Books for 13 titles over 10 years, and the first of those is The Collapsing Empire, a best selling, interstellar space opera, that has been described as Game of Thrones meets Dune. And in part two of this file, John and I discuss why this isn’t the worst time in human history by a long shot, the writer’s unique workflow and technological polyglotism, creativity as a survival instinct, how luck and persistence can play a part in your success as a writer, and why you really only need to focus on the things you can control.
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Kelton Reid: You know, I mean all I can come back to is that it seems like now more than ever, and any time in history, we do need these great stories, don’t we? We need great storytellers like yourself to help us through the rough patches, so …
John Scalzi: I think that humans story tell, no matter what we do. And to get into the sort of, Now let’s talk about the mystical aspects of writing. But that’s how we communicate with each other. We tell each other stories about what we want, we tell each other stories about what’s going on, we tell each other stories about who we want to be, and then try to meet up with those things. We are a storytelling species. That’s what we do. I know that this isn’t the worst that it’s ever been, do you know what I mean?
Kelton Reid: Oh yeah.
John Scalzi: I was talking to somebody and, you know, the whole idea that 2016 was terrible and 2017 has been worse. And I have the position that 2017 is a terrible year, but it’s not as bad as 2016 because we knew 2017 was going to be bad. You know? We knew in November that it was like, Okay here we go. 2016 could have had the potential to be a wonderful year, and yet, the very first thing it did was take David Bowie. And that’s when we knew that 2016 wasn’t messing around, it was going to take a chunk out of us.
But even then, 2016 is not a patch on 1939, it’s not a patch on 1492 if you’re looking at a … if you’re someone who has any sense of history and what 1492 did to the people who lived in the Americas. There has always been awful times. There have always also, within those horrible years, there have been wonderful things as well. We have always needed stories, we have always needed people to tell us that it’s going to be better, and also to remind us that things are good. It feels terrible right now. I mean, I imagine there are some people who are like “Yes, 2017 has been going exactly to plan.” I don’t know who they are, because even the people who thought that they were going to be happy with what they were getting have basically been surprised with what they got.
But, as far as it goes, even within those difficulties, there have been good things too. And I think we owe it to ourselves as storytellers to help mitigate pain and to accentuate joy to the extent that we can do that, that’s great. It’s not all up to us. But we’ve always had to do that, every year has had its challenges, every year has been a great year and a terrible year as well. And true that this year seems below average in terms of joy and happiness, but I think that we can still find things that we are happy about and share them with each other. And that’s part of the gig, you’re right.
Kelton Reid: Yeah. Some good perspective there, for sure. Good things to remember, especially for writers. Just to touch on workflow really quick before I plug your brain about creativity itself. I know you’ve been a Mac guy forever. Are you still a Mac user?
John Scalzi: No actually, I haven’t been a Mac guy … I was a Mac guy for a very brief period between 2005 and 2007, professionally. When I started writing was right around the same time the first Macintoshes came out, so from about 1984 to about 1991 I was a Mac dude, then I went over to PC, had a brief moment of Mac-ness and then I ve gone back to PC. And now I’m using Chromebooks a lot, too. So I’m all over the place. I’m not a faithful person, computer wise. I am computer-poly. That’s the way I want to say it.
Kelton Reid: Sure, sure. Well that’s cool. So just for other writers who might be curious about the Chromebook workflow, then are you … I mean, how are you capturing, or getting stuff onto the page in a Chromebook? Are you using a dedicated cloud service?
John Scalzi: Well what happens is, the nice things about Chromebooks is that they are super integrated into the Google ecosystem and Google has a suite of productivity apps that are basically cloud based, so Google Docs and the other stuff that they use. I mostly use Google Docs. And so when I’m writing on a Chromebook I will use Google Docs, particularly for shorter works, like short stories, articles, and stuff like that.
But, when I need something a little more full featured, I can also access … these days I can access Microsoft Word online through Office 365. So when I’m at my desktop I’ll be writing on Word, I will save it to Office 365, as well as keeping a local copy. Because as you know as a writer, it’s so easy to lose things. Multiple copies is … keeps you from going crazy. And then I can pull it up on the Chromebook, provided I have an internet connection. Which you have these days almost everywhere, including on planes, so it’s less of a problem.
The one thing I like about Google Docs, which every other online word processor hasn’t figured it out yet, much to my confusion, is that Google Docs actually has a ruler so that I can indent, you know? And it seems like a small thing, but honestly, indenting now means that I don’t have to indent later, you know. And so Office 365, the Word Online doesn’t have it. You actually have to do all those formatting things that you want to do, you have to actually do them in a document on a desktop or a laptop that is Windows capable and then save that document to the cloud, rather than starting a new document and having the formatting that you want. But I just think that’s stupid.
But yeah … Five or six years ago when the Chromebooks were coming out, I tried writing a novel on them, and I couldn’t because they weren’t there yet. But now, it’s actually really easy to do. Enough so that when I’m on tour I’m taking the Acer C302 with me, both as my main computer and also it flips over to be a tablet so I can do my readings on that as well. And it’s become a really versatile thing for a writer on the road.
Now, I wouldn’t try to do heavy duty video editing on it, or audio editing, or photo editing. But for regular old editing, for regular old writing, it’s everything I need at this point. And it’s cheaper. I had to come down to the decision between the Acer C302A and a Dell XPS13, and both of them are beautiful computers and I would have been happy with either, but one was half the cost. And also was cheap enough that if I lost it in an airport, which I have done with previous laptops, then I would be upset, but I wouldn’t be, “I just lost a $1,500 computer” upset I would be, “Ugh, all right. Time to get another Chromebook.”
Kelton Reid: Yeah, yeah. All good points there. Well that’s cool and interesting. You don’t hear that everyday. So how does John Scalzi unwind at the end of a long writing day?
John Scalzi: With more writing usually, because I’m an idiot, apparently. So I get done with my writing for the day, and then I will often flip over to my website and I’ll write a web entry, or a blog entry, or I will go on Twitter and I will yell at my friends and they’ll yell back at me. I do things other than writing but it is the thing that I actually enjoy, so I tend to do a little bit more writing before I m done with the day.
Eventually, my wife comes home and my child comes home and we spend time with each other as family. My wife and I will watch something on TV, or watch a movie and we’ll talk. But my life is basically fairly simple and staid. We don’t go off and have wacky adventures at the end of each day. I actually am a creature who enjoys his comforts. So family and pets and home are things that appeal to me. So basically what I’m admitting is that I’m a hobbit.
Kelton Reid: Right, right. Good stuff, good stuff. All right, well, if you have the time, I’d love to pick your brain a little bit about creativity.
John Scalzi: Yeah, let’s do it.
Kelton Reid: Okay. So do you have a definition of, kind of your own definition of creativity for writers?
John Scalzi: For me particularly, I think creativity is the ability to both imagine a world in your head and be able to express that, what’s in your head, to others. And I guess one of the fundamental questions is where does that creativity come from? Why are some people creative and some people aren’t? And I don’t know that I have a really good answer to that. I mean, I think about my wife.
My wife is one of the most awesome people in the world. She is super smart, she is super organized, she keeps Team Scalzi together. She is the CEO, I am the figurehead chairman, right? But she does all the work. My life would be miserable and unhappy without her, not only emotionally, but from a business point of view. And she is perfect, and I love her, and she doesn’t have a creative bone in her body and she is the first to admit it.
And what does that mean? Does it mean that she is less of a person? Obviously not, she’s not. But, it does mean that there’s some part of her brain that doesn’t work the way my brain works. And it goes both ways. There’s things that she can do that I can’t do and I’m sort of amazed that she can get them done. She is an amazing straight line thinker. You present her with the problem, she doesn’t do the nerd over thinking thing of going 16,000 different places. She just goes “This is what needs to get done.” And then later on, after I’ve gone 16,000 different places, I’m like, “You were absolutely right and you have that offer a month ago, whereas I had to go through all this other stuff.”
And I think maybe that’s the thing, is the people who are creative in one way or another, you might say they’re the people who overthink, who do all the scenarios. What does that mean? You say hello to someone and they say hello back, and you’re like “Why did they say hello in exactly that way? Was there something going … I think I noticed some strain in their voice. What was going on?” And then you imagine the scenario where they say hello to you, but it’s filled with a tinge of regret and wistfulness and all this sort of stuff.
Whereas most people would just be like, “He said hello. What more do you want out of it?” But it’s like “I need to know more.” So, I think maybe there is a correlation between creativity and just overthinking. Which would correspond, I think, in a way to why the stereotype of writers is that they’re neurotic in one way or another, because neurosis often exhibits itself as a sort of making up multiple scenarios, most of them terrible, and then trying to figure out what to do with that.
It’s rooted in biology in some way or another, I’m absolutely sure. Maybe you needed creative people back on the savannah to go … someone say, “Well we just need to go to that tree right over there,” you know? And they’d be like “But wait, between here and the tree, how many different predators do you think there are? Because I ve imagined 17 of them, and they would all eat us.” Right? So that creativity was not about writing, but it was about, somebody has to think about all the ways that this could go horribly wrong.
So maybe that’s where creativity comes from. It’s a survival tactic for the tribe. Not everybody has to be creative, and indeed, if you only had a group of creative people in your tribe, maybe you would never get anything done because they would be paralyzed by indecision. You need someone to go, “Screw it, we’re going to go do this thing.” But by the same token, you need the people who go, “Let’s play out that scenario.” So I think that that’s probably part of it. That creativity eventually comes from the need not to have ourselves or other people eaten by leopards. I don’t know, is that the usual answer? You tell me.
Kelton Reid: It is. No, in a nutshell, yes. Thank you. Exactly the usual answer.
Kelton Reid: I love it, I love it. So do you have some creative force that’s driving you right now? Or just sort of in general something that makes you feel most creative?
John Scalzi: I used to say that the driving creative force in my life was my mortgage. Which people laughed and I was like “No, seriously. I don’t want to have to work doing anything else. And I have to pay my mortgage, so that is a primary focus.” And then I would give the example of how creativity can come from anywhere. It’s like, why is Crime and Punishment a 600 page masterpiece of guilt and redemption? Is it because that was the form Dostoyevsky had always had in his mind for it? Or was it that Dostoyevsky had gambling debts and Crime and Punishment was a serial that was published in a magazine and that it behooved him to have it go on as long as humanly possible, because he had gambling debts. And the answer is a little of column A and a little of column B.
So there’s a lot of material aspects to my creativity. It was, a lot of times, I didn’t want to have to do anything else for a job, I did want to have a house, I did want to eat, I did want my daughter to have shoes. And I think there’s nothing wrong with acknowledging that aspect. Another aspect that people don’t want to acknowledge all the time, because it sounds ignoble, but I started writing stories when I was 14 years old because I wrote them and it got me attention, right? All of my friends were like, “Wow, you do this really well.” So I would write stories and they would star my friends and they would do ridiculous things, you know, and it was awesome. And so I’ve always had that attention seeking aspect of my creativity.
I ve never kept a personal journal. Writing in the “Dear diary, today I did blah blah blah blah.” Because I would only be writing for myself. One of the reasons that I wrote a blog was because I wanted to tell people what I was thinking, you know? And in some ways that’s good. It can edge into mansplaining, which is a thing that I’ve certainly been accused of more than once in my lifetime. I’m a recovering mansplainer, I hope to get better as I go along. But that want and desire for attention is absolutely a part of what fuels my creativity, because this is a way that I can say to people, “Hey, I have value. Not only do I have value, but you’re going to love me for these things that come out of my brain.”
So those are two things, and then the third thing is the less noble, but simply, I overthink. I think of the world, I imagine scenarios, they seem interesting to me, and my brain is going to create anyway. I have absolutely no control over that, it’s always been that way. It’s not onerous for me. The thing, the question that I get, that all writers get, that I never understand is, “Where do you get your ideas?” And it’s like, they just show up. The question is not, Where do you get ideas? I’ve got 20 or 30 ideas a day. The question is, How do you know the good ideas from the bad ideas?
And my answer for that is that something comes in my brain it’s like, “Here’s an idea!” It’s like, “Wow, that’s a great idea!” And I don’t write it down. And if the next day I actually remember it, then I’m like, “Huh, maybe this is a good idea.” And then I don’t write it down again, and then I keep giving ideas a whole bunch of opportunities to leave my brain. And most of them do, but a few stick, and those are the ones that I write.
But the creative thing is natural. And it’s just a thing that I think that anybody who has a creative urge in some ways has a hard time explaining it. And not only with writing, but any sort of thing. Like I look at friends of mine who are wonderful artists and I see what comes out of their hands and I’m amazed, because there is no possible way that I could ever do that. I mean, I could build up a certain amount of competency with drawing so that you could recognize that what I drew was meant to be a horse, right? But the people who … you look at the picture that they draw of a horse and not only is it obviously a horse, but it is obviously more than that, that it evokes an emotional response that would be different than just a simple picture of a horse.
And how did they do that? And they can tell you how they do the craft of it, and they can tell you which pencils they use, and they can tell you about all the time that they spent practicing it, because nothing is achieved without practice, but fundamentally, you know, a lot of it just comes down to you can do that because your brain is wired that way. And it’s not to discount all the effort, it’s not to discount all the individual aspects of their creativity, but there is something going on that is just native to them.
Just like with me with writing, or a musician with their ability to play a particular instrument, or to create melody. Some of that is ineffable. Some of that is indefinable. It’s not magical, it’s not necessarily purely spiritual, but it is something that you can’t bottle. Work and practice and effort will take you 80-90% of the way to where you need to be, and indeed, sometimes it will be enough for you to make a career.
But that extra 10%, that extra 5%, that extra 1% that is the spark is something that I think is just part of your brain. And you can’t explain it anymore than you can explain why you have brown eyes, or why you re left handed or right handed, or why you’re straight or gay. It’s just part of who you are and it’s part of what informs who you are as a person.
Kelton Reid: Yeah, yeah.
John Scalzi: I’m sorry, I monologue. I don’t know if you knew that when you-
Kelton Reid: I love it, I love it. It’s great, it’s great. There’s so many good pieces of wisdom in there for writers and I’m sure I could keep you on here all day long, but I won’t do that to you.
John Scalzi: Okay.
Kelton Reid: But you know, you’ve been compared to some great writers throughout your career. What do you think … what makes a writer great, as opposed to average?
John Scalzi: Some of it is luck. Some of it is being in the right place at the right time. One of the things that I always tell people is if Old Man’s War had been published in 2004 or 2006 instead of 2005, that people might not have responded to it the way that they did, and that my career would be different. Some of it is natural talent that people are able to arrange sentences in ways that evoke an emotional response, or that they are able to say things that need to be said at a particular time and place. Some of it is sheer cussedness, the absolute refusal to go away or accept defeat or to look at failure as anything but a temporary thing.
Having talked about the ineffable spark of creativity, one of the things that’s always dangerous about that is to minimize the simple fact that showing up is almost all of the game. There are people I know who are great writers, undisputably great writers, who are super talented, who I look at what they do and how they write and am in awe of it. And yet, they will never be known as one of the greats. And why is that? Part of that is because sometimes they don’t put in the effort, sometimes they don’t care, sometimes they are the victims of their particular circumstances.
That makes it difficult for people to find the writing that could possibly change their lives. So much of what we do is persistence, of not only persistence and continuing to write and continuing to improve, but also the persistence of being there for people to see you, giving yourself as many bats as possible so you can get onto base or hit a homerun. But, ultimately, a lot of what makes a writer great is not up to the writer. A lot of it is up to forces that are entirely beyond their control.
Like I said, sometimes you have to be lucky. You have to be in the right place at the right time with the right idea. I don’t call myself great, by the way. But like I said, with the example of Old Man’s War. It was in the right place at the right time. I won … Red Shirts, I won the Hugo Award. Would I have won that Hugo Award the year before or the year after? Who knows? There were completely different other books that were out at that time. But I got it, and it’s had a benefit to me. There are so many circumstances that help people achieve notability or fame or greatness that are entirely not up to them at all. Sometimes being great just means being one of the first people there to play that particular game.
You look at some of the great video games or some of the great video game designers and they were doing things on Atari or in 8 bits that somebody today, a teenager would just bat out and not even think about. But they were there first, they were the people who created the games for the Atari 2600 that people literally played for hours and hours and hours and became part of their gestalt. And so, sometimes just being in the right place at the right time, it makes all the difference.
John Scalzi: The one thing that I tell people about is, Don’t worry about greatness. Don’t worry about anything else but the things you can control. And the things you can control are your own writing. Are you happy with what you wrote? Are you happy with the way that it spoke to you before it spoke to anyone else? And it’s also important to remember that just because you don’t get fame or fortune or notoriety or whatever now, doesn’t mean that what you’re doing has no value either for yourself or simply for the fact that other people might find it.
One of the greatest American poets is Emily Dickinson. I think she had maybe one poem published during her lifetime, and that was under a pseudonym. And yet, she is indisputably one of the great writers in the American canon. You can’t ignore the force of her work, or the beauty of her words. And she went through her entire life not knowing that we would think she was great. She never knew. She got all the way through it and kept all that stuff in a drawer.
So you never do know. My expectation is that when I die, 20 years after I’m gone, people will still be reading me. 50 years? Maybe a couple people will remember me like they remember E. E. Doc Smith or Olaf Stapledon. 100 years from now, somebody is going to be reading me because they need a thesis, and they’re desperate, and they’re like, “Oh, nobody’s done anything with this guy, let me do this.”
And I’m perfectly okay with that, because right now I’m reaping some of the benefits of doing what I’m doing. People are enjoying what I’m writing. Sometimes people come to me and they say, “My dad and I read this book together and it was a thing that we bonded over, and we couldn’t bond over anything else before, so thank you.” You get some benefits now. And I’ll be dead, I won’t know whether my work will survive. But right now I’m getting that benefit.
Other people who we can’t even name right now, 100, 200 years from now people will be like, “They cast a shadow over this particular age.” And we don’t even know who they are. I wish I was alive 200 years from now to find out who that person was and then go, “Hey, I wrote some stuff back then too.” And they’d be like, “That’s nice.” But so don’t worry about greatness. Worry about writing stuff that matters to you and that you think will matter to others if you want to enjoy others in that sphere. What greatness is will take care of itself. But what you can influence is what you put onto the page. So take care of the stuff you can take care of. And don’t worry about the rest of it.
Kelton Reid: I love that. I think that’s some great advice for your fellow scribes. And probably a good place to wrap up so I don’t keep you over an hour. I did want to ask you one fun one. If you had to choose one author from any era for an all expense paid dinner to your favorite spot, your favorite restaurant, who would you take and where would you take them?
John Scalzi: Wow. I … it’s a super stereotypical thing. No, I changed my mind. I want to take Mary Shelley to dinner, because I want to tell her that she was foundational to an entire genre and I want to see how she handles that, you know? Because, I think it would be interesting. Because, how often do you get to say to someone not even Shakespeare. Shakespeare was writing plays, but people had been writing plays before that. But you can point to things that were sort of science fictional before Frankenstein. But in terms of influence, in terms of something that you look at and you’re like, “There’s no doubt this is science fiction.” Not only science fiction, but also horror and psychological thriller. That this is the place where all those things branch off of. That she is our Lucy, she is our Eve for those of us who toil in genre in many ways. And she was 19 years old.
So I would love to have lunch with her, or dinner with her, and then take her to a bookstore. So I think we would go to a bookstore café. And it’s sort of like, You wouldn’t take Mary Shelley to a nice diner? If Mary Shelley is who I think she is, she would want a muffin while she looked through the racks and saw what became of the thing that she gave birth to in her brain. So as far as that goes, I think she is the person that I would want to have a meal with. And I would take her to a bookstore café and then be there for the rest of the afternoon, while she was looking through the shelves.
Kelton Reid: I love it. Good images there. John, thanks so much for stopping by the show to enlighten us with some of your great writerly wisdom. The new book by John Scalzi, The Collapsing Empire, an interstellar epic. It’s hard to wrap up in a few words, but it is out now. You are on tour. Listeners can connect with you out there. Thank you so much for popping in and rapping with us.
Thanks so much for joining me for this half of a tour through the writer’s process. If you enjoy The Writer Files podcast, please subscribe to the show and leave us a rating or a review on iTunes to help other writers find us. For more episodes, or to just leave a comment or a question, you can drop by WriterFiles.FM and you can always chat with me on Twitter @KeltonReid. Cheers. Talk to you next week.